My Name Is Julia Ross

julia ross 1The Noir Odyssey

Writer: Muriel Roy Bolton

Based on the novel “The Woman in Red” by Anthony Gilbert

Director: Joseph H. Lewis

Cinematographer: Burnett Guffey

Music: Mischa Bakaleinikoff

Cast: Nina Foch, May Whitty, George Macready, Roland Varno

Release: November 9, 1945

Studio: Columbia Pictures

Percent Noir: 60%

“My Name is Julia Ross” is a very good movie that is frustrating because it comes so close to greatness. This should be a masterpiece, you keep telling yourself as you watch… and yet…

Nina Foch portrays the title character, who is down on her lucky in rain-soaked London, and interviews for a job as a secretary. Odd questions are asked – do you have a husband? Boyfriend? Family? The woman interviewing Julia explains that the woman looking to employ the secretary has had a history of women leaving after a few months because of personal entanglements. Julia says she has no one. She gets the job, shows up for work and is promptly drugged, kidnapped and moved to a cliffside mansion where she is held hostage and told her name is Marion Hughes. And that’s all within the first 15 minutes. I knew nothing about the film going in, and the first big surprise of the film genuinely caught me off guard.

julia ross 2Despite the film being fairly straightforward, it touches oh-so-slightly on some deep subjects, specifically the loss of identity. Director Joseph H. Lewis frames the opening sequence of the film very interestingly, following Julia from behind as she enters her boarding house and not revealing her face for several moments. There are two reasons given for Julia to be in the position she is – the first is that she is recovering from an appendectomy, and the second is the insinuation (though a wedding invitation she receives and tears up) that she was involved with an engaged sugar daddy and that it ended badly. Neither of these is fleshed out well, which is a shame because it would give Julia’s character some much-needed dimension. She’s the token “plucky heroine” when she’s kidnapped, and because there isn’t any specificity to the character, the second act in particular feels like a missed opportunity. The unnecessary addition of a lame love interest (Roland Varno) who shows up then disappears until the very end doesn’t help matters.

This is doubly a shame since the rest of the movie engages the viewer so completely. From the moment May Whitty, who portrays Julia’s employer/kidnapped Mrs. Hughes, drops her guise of sweetness, the movie takes off. George Macready, who is “Marion’s” “husband,” is really creepy – I love the way the screenwriter so blatantly illustrates his psychosis by having him stab everything, destroying curtains, pillows and his dead wife in the process.

julia ross 3Muriel Roy Bolton, who adapted the film from Anthony Gilbert’s book, knows what kind of movie this is, and has some fun with the trappings. There’s a random secret passage in Julia’s bedroom that she uses to overhear exposition bombs of character background, a bottle of poison with a skull and crossbones (the antidote is helpfully written on the front – white of egg with mustard and hot water. Yuck.) and even a black cat. Clichés? Of course. But part of the fun of a movie like “My Name is Julia Ross” is playing along. If you disagree, there’s just no talking to you.

Bolton is also smart enough to understand that Julia’s “I’m not Marion!” arguing will get repetitive and annoying pretty fast for the audience, so she finds several ways to spin the storytelling into interesting, new aspects. Julia fakes taking poison so a doctor will be called, Mrs. Hughes senses she is faking, so hedges her bets by sending in a fake doctor before the real one arrives. Julia spills her heart to the fake doctor, and when the ruse becomes apparent Julia is spiraling when the real doctor arrives. There’s also some business with a letter (Julia’s handwriting under pressure remains stellar) that keeps getting replaced that is a lot of fun.

Foch is fine as Julia, bringing enough strength to the role to be engaging, though one has to wonder what someone like Joan Fontaine or Jane Greer could have done with the role. That said, there is something interesting about having the villains of the piece be so much larger than the heroine in their performance – it does work within the context of the story being told.

Lewis considers this his breakthrough film – Columbia was so impressed by his work that they nearly doubled his shooting days so that the film got the attention it deserved. The early atmospheric sequences in London are especially compelling, though that aforementioned long take that introduces us to Julia tragically is ruined halfway through by a needless insert shot of a letter. He doesn’t quite pull off the storytelling twists of the climax involving suicide and a dress as well as he should, though the climactic chase into the ocean surf makes up for it.

Lewis’ cinematographer, Burnett Guffey, is one of the greatest of all cinematographers, creating the look for classic films noir like “The Reckless Moment” and “In a Lonely Place” before working on masterpieces like “From Here to Eternity” and then defining the look of “new Hollywood” with “Bonnie & Clyde” near the end of his career.

Despite its problems “My Name is Julia Ross” is still a gem, though possibly it’s more attractive to fans of “Rebecca” and “Jane Eyre” than noir aficionados.

Score: ****

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Murder, My Sweet

murder my sweet 1The Noir Odyssey

Writer: John Paxton

Based on the novel “Farewell, My Lovely” by Raymond Chandler

Director: Edward Dmytryk

Cinematographer: Harry J. Wild

Music: Roy Webb

Cast: Dick Powell, Claire Trevor, Anne Shirley, Otto Kruger, Mike Mazurki, Miles Mander

Release: December 9, 1944

Studio: RKO Pictures

Percent Noir: 90%

For a film noir, “Murder, My Sweet” has an obscenely stacked deck. One look at the roster of creators behind the project should have you salivating. Chandler! Powell! Paxton! Dmytryk! Trevor! Kruger! Wild! Be still my heart! Put all these talents together and it seems inevitable that you’re gonna get something great. And, unsurprisingly, the movie is just that.

This is the first of many Phillip Marlowe adaptations, and appears to arrive fully formed, with all the usual trimmings. Raymond Chandler wrote the novel that John Paxton adapted, so you know you’re in for weird, serpentine plotting that barely makes sense if you try to keep track of everything. Plot was never the point of Chandler’s work anyway – it was relishing the opportunity to see Marlowe yelling at a myriad of people, and in that regard the movie delivers in spades.

murder my sweet 3The movie has about five beginnings. We fade into a blind Marlowe (Dick Powell) possibly under arrest, then flashes back a few days. A huge moose of a man aptly named Moose (Mike Mazurki), who at the very least has some brain damage, hires Marlowe to find his beloved Velma, who he hasn’t seen in eight years. Then suddenly we’re concerned with a guy named Marriott (Douglas Walton) who hires Marlowe to escort him to the woods where he is to pay to get a jade necklace back. Marriott ends up shot dead (Marlowe: “[It was like] an elephant had stepped on his head.”) and Marlowe is a suspect. But we need some dames in this story, so we get a blonde one named Helen (Claire Trevor) who owned the jade and her daughter-in-law Ann (Anne Shirley). Both try to hire Marlowe, and seduce him, and scream at him, and disappear on him in the middle of very important conversations. Confused yet? Eh, just go with it – that’s part of the fun.

It’s a credit to screenwriter Paxton that it’s as coherent as it is. I’ve read the book, and trust me, he had quite the beast to tame. Paxton was a great screenwriter (“The Wild One,” “Kotch”), and his life inspired one of the best noir graphic novels ever – Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips’ “The Fade Out.” Paxton keeps all the book’s essentials and copies and pastes the best Chandler dialogue (“She was a charming middle-aged lady with a face like a bucket of mud. I gave her a drink. She was a gal who’d take a drink, even if she had to knock you down to get the bottle.”) then adds in a few of his own flourishes. He essentially breaks the fourth wall a few times, winking at the audience about how little it all makes sense by having Marlowe complain about how everyone is paying him money to take the case and suddenly paying him money to drop the case. Then, when Marlowe is yelling at random suspects, they will often interrupt and point out plot holes. Marlowe shrugs it off, admitting he sometimes just says stuff to say stuff. You can’t help but smile.

Knowing he’s got a murky story to work with, director Edward Dmytryk throws in more noir shadows than you can shake a stick at. The first sequence, where Marlowe is blind, has cigarette smoke and face shadows and body shadows and weird expressionist shadows… that room is bleeding mood. Working with his cinematographer, the great Harry J. Wild (“Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” “His Kind of Woman”), Dmytryk manages to find atmosphere and shadows in every scene, even bright office scenes that take place in the middle of the day. And the expressionistic stuff he does when Marlowe is drugged and sedated for three days? Holeee shit. I usually have no patience for the usually crappy camera tricks from that time period, but Dmytryk plays it smart with the cobweb over the camera and the sequence involving doors. Heck, even the fade to black used when Marlowe is clunked over the head has style, using animation to close the frame in an awesome way, almost like the iris shots from the silent era.

Dmytryk directed several well-regarded films noir, including “The Sniper” and “Crossfire.” He almost lost his career thanks to the Communist blacklist, but came back and made films like “Raintree County” (Montgomery Clift was in his car accident halfway through shooting and Dmytryk had to figure out a way to make his pre-and-post surgery footage all work together), the remake of “The Blue Angel” and “The Caine Mutiny.” I have opined previously that his films usually do not age well, but am ecstatic that this is the exception.

He also cast the movie well. This film was a big deal for Powell, who was aging out of romantic roles and wanted something grittier. Well, he got it. His interpretation of Marlowe is aces through and through, never winking at the audience and playing the scenes straight and with an inherent exhaustion that works wonders. There’s also a great moment where he can’t help but dance in the great hall of a mansion that never fails to make me laugh out loud – I wonder if it was improvised…

murder my sweet 2Trevor acquits herself very well to the femme fatale role here, knowing when to play it straight and when to ham it up juuuust enough. I love the shot of her lying in the dark in her beach house, lit cigarette breaking the blackness of the room. Shirley (who retired after this film) has the trickier role, being both a possible fatale but also retaining enough innocence to work as a straight romantic lead for Marlowe, and she does very well. Her chemistry with Powell is palpable, and it’s a shame she quit after this film. Supporting players like Kruger and Mazurki are solid as always.

After the beach house is introduced, things begin to sag a little bit. There’s still a bunch of crackerjack dialogue to be had, but the film is weighed down by the necessity to explain all the randomness we’ve just seen, and watching people talk and talk and talk is less interesting for me than the mystery itself, especially when the payoff is…well…fine and not outstanding. The film fails to pay off the Moose character in the explosive way one would hope, and Marlowe is blinded in a “meh” fashion. It’s not bad, and had the first two-thirds of the movie not been incredible, the lesser stuff wouldn’t stick out like a sore thumb.

But alas, it does, and that holds back “Murder, My Sweet” from being a masterpiece. Still, it remains one of my favorite Chandler works ever, and Powell is so appealing as Marlowe and can spit out the dialogue like nobody’s business. I really wish he’d gotten to play this role again on the big screen.

Score: ****

Murder by Contract

murder by contrast 1The Noir Odyssey

Writer: Ben Simcoe

Director: Irving Lerner

Cinematographer: Lucien Ballard

Music: Perry Botkin

Cast: Vince Edwards, Phillip Pine, Herschel Bernardi, Caprice Toriel

Release: December 13, 1958

Studio: Columbia Pictures

Percent Noir: 60%

I really wish that “Murder by Contract” was not called “Murder by Contract.” Further, I wish that the poster didn’t feature an image from the last five minutes of the movie that spoils the main thrust of the storytelling. Oh, to be someone who could watch the movie without knowing a thing about it and allowing its nasty world to slowly reveal itself… that would be something great.

The first two-thirds of the film are about as perfect as movies get. It tells the story of a guy named Claude (Vince Edwards) who, one day, decides to become a contract killer. Turns out he’s great at killing, and one day his boss sends him to Los Angeles to plug a woman named Billie (Caprice Toriel). His two handlers George (Herschel Bernardi) and Marc (Phillip Pine) don’t know what to make of his eccentric ways at first, but still help him out in a pinch with things like trips to the beach and shooting flaming arrows.

The economy with which writer Ben Simcoe and director Irving Lerner set up this world is astonishing, especially considering that “economy” usually doesn’t equate with “style,” and yet here both are balanced perfectly. I love the way that the filmmakers use just enough information to get across what needs to be learned by the viewer (often without dialogue), but rarely do more. It makes the viewer an active participant in the film by making them stay alert so as not to miss something… and quite a change of pace considering how often these movies spoon feed us exposition. Look at the scene where Claude first enters a room for his job interview with Mr. Moon (Michael Granger). The camera lingers on Claude as the interview starts, but the moment you begin to wonder why we aren’t looking at Moon, the camera cuts to him. The interaction is stylish, and yet it doesn’t call attention to how awesome it is. Lerner seems allergic to boring set-ups like over/over/two shots, but doesn’t rewrite the cinematic language so much that it’s a distraction for the viewer. Lerner also knows when to hold still and just regard his actor. We watch Claude getting ready for work. Later we watch him spend weeks alone in his apartment… he dresses for no one, pays for food delivery with a table-long line of dimes, works out… building character without Claude saying a word.

murder by contract 2And what a character Claude is, inhabited to perfection by Edwards. Aside from his supporting role in “The Killing,” I have never seen another performance from him (he would reteam with director Lerner for the noir “City of Fear,” unseen by me), but damn I wish I had. Then again, you’ll note the beginning of a pattern here – all of the filmmakers in front and behind the camera do incredible work… work that was never equaled elsewhere, resulting in most of their stuff falling through the cracks of time. I hate to call Edwards a Marlon Brando type, but those are probably the roles he kept going out for in the ‘50s. The movie, especially in its early sections, treats him like walking sex. The camera lingers on his body as we watch him lounge, swim, work out…whatever. Perhaps the studio was worried a film with such dark subject matter needed a beefcake to help sell it? Maybe the filmmakers wanted to underline that the most beautiful things can represent the worst in humanity? Both?

That said, Edwards brings much nuance and subtlety to his work. After being quiet or monosyllabic for most of the movie, the screenplay slaps him with two multi-minute monologues that help explain his motivations, one right after the other, and Edwards hits a homerun both times. When one of his handlers asks him if he feels anything, Edwards shrugs, explaining “I’m hot. I’m cold.” The way he delivers the line will give you the goosebumps.

murder by contract 3If the first 50 minutes of “Murder By Contract” are perfect, a few major hiccups get in the way of making the movie transcendent. After thinking he has killed Billie, Vince has a few hours before he heads home, so he hires a hooker named Mary (Cathy Browne). Mary is obviously a sex worker, but the movie (probably because of content restrictions) finds itself bending over backwards to paint her as something else. She works at a law firm as a secretary! She wants to go to dinner when she gets to the hotel room (mmmHmm). That bugged me, but even moreso is the wild, wild coincidence that her uncle (or whoever) works for the police and spilled a secret that Billie is really alive, and that the conversation between Mary and Claude would go in that direction, and that Mary would know so many details. *deep breath* It’s cuh-razy. There has to have been a better way to get that information across.

Even odder is that Claude then refuses to attempt to kill Billie again because this killing is “a jinx.” Nothing we’ve seen of Claude makes this superstitious point of view seem in character. Ugh. The film thankfully rights itself by the time Claude is crawling through a drainage pipe for the big climax, but for awhile there I was worried the filmmakers were about to shit the bed entirely.

Ah, but when the movie is good, it’s great. There are so many small moments that are just perfect, like the moment where Claude turns on the man who hired him, or the way he explains that he was seeing if his handlers were being tailed. It makes you wonder why the writer and director never got more traction in Hollywood. Screenwriter Simcoe wrote a few television episodes and two other forgotten films… and that’s it. Director Lerner may have been a Soviet spy against us (in which case I bite my thumb at him), but he also worked as a director on a bunch of forgotten movies (he reteamed with Edwards on several episodes of Edwards’ television show “Ben Casey”), but was also an editor and producer. Perry Botkin, who composed the tremendous score, was better known as a guitar player than a composer, and his major claim to fame aside from this movie was writing songs for “The Beverly Hillbillies.” Yes, you read that right.

That said, whatever else they did in their lives, they still came together to make this film, which is more than enough.

Score: ****

The Lodger

the lodger 1The Film Noir Odyssey

Writer: Barre Lyndon

Based on “The Lodger” novel by Marie Belloc Lowndes

Director: John Brahm

Cinematographer: Lucien Ballard

Music: Hugo Friedhofer

Cast: Laird Cregar, Merle Oberon, George Sanders, Sara Allgood, Sir Cedric Hardwicke

Release: January 19, 1944

Studio: 20th Century Fox

Percent Noir: 50%

The only way that “The Lodger” works is to think of it in relation to the film it remakes. That film, 1927’s The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog” is one of Alfred Hitchcock’s early works and is oft-considered the movie where the iconic director found his mojo. The story beats, which track a mysterious new tenant renting a room in a family home and their growing suspicion that he may be a serial killer, are uniform until the third act. In Hitchcock’s version, the “Lodger” is innocent. In the 1944 version, he is indeed the killer.

For someone who has seen the 1927 original, the revelation is a genuine surprise. For everyone else, though? Talk about an anticlimax. We spend a little over an hour watching a creepster acting very creepy while the idiot family that has taken him in wave away every big flashing neon sign pointing at his guilt to discover that there is no twist. Ugh.

The other notable change is that the serial killer in Hitchcock’s version was named “The Avenger,” though he was obviously inspired by Jack the Ripper. Here, the filmmakers explicitly use the Ripper killings as their jumping off point, which is also odd because they change so much of the story – it’s forgivable that they change the victims from prostitutes to actresses considering the production code, but altering the ending so that the killer is caught? Not so much.

the lodger 3Anyway, here the title character is named Slade (Laird Cregar), and he moves into the home of Robert (Sir Cedric Hardwicke), Ellen (Sara Allgood) and their daughter Kitty (a much-too-bland Merle Oberon). Kitty is a much-lauded actress/dancer who Slade finds himself increasingly obsessed with, and the entire family notices his behavior is a little off. He comes in and out at all hours, keeps burning his clothes and medical bag, and no matter what part of the room he’s in, his face always seems framed at the edge of shadows. Weird, right? Especially considering Jack the Ripper is killing women in town every ten days. Kitty is being courted by a police inspector named John (a wonderfully restrained George Sanders), who also seems unaware that Slade is acting totally cray.

As I hinted earlier, screenwriter Barre Lyndon and director John Brahm aren’t exactly subtle at pointing the finger at Slade. They frame Cregar’s face in the most villainous way possible in almost every shot. Almost as soon as we meet him, he psychotically turns all the paintings of females over in his room while gasping for air. Slade first burns his medical bag seconds after hearing that the killer has a medical bag just like his, and later burns his blood-covered shirt directly after another murder. Both times family members catch him – he seems physically incapable of closing a door – but both times Robert’s character waves it off. “Anyone with that type of bag would burn it!” Robert says as an excuse, to which I responded “!!!!!????!!!!” After the second incident, Robert calms the women down by saying “Remember when you were wrong about the bag?” instead of what any rational person would say: “Golly, there’s a lot of evidence piling up. Let’s talk to your cop boyfriend.”

Then again, the London police department doesn’t seem much better off – there’s a long sequence where Sanders admits that the entire police force cannot tell the difference between a left hand and a right hand. You get where I’m going with this, right? Why should the viewer invest himself or herself in a storyline where all the characters you are supposed to root for are idiots who basically deserve to die because of their stupidity? Anyone?

There’s a fascinating article on TCM.com where David Kalat writes that the first two acts do an incredible job of illustrating the paranoia and suspicion that the circumstances of having a serial killer at large have on normal people. That argument would only work if Slade was innocent, though. Instead, you find yourself wanting to shout helpful advice to the screen when the characters do stupid things, which is often. You want examples? The parents decide it would be best not to leave Kitty alone in the house with Slade, and in the very next scene do just that. In the climactic sequence John says they should stay inside the theater where the murderer is because they can keep an eye on Kitty easier there… and then immediately abandon her on a fainting couch.

the lodger 2I suppose my genuine frustration with “The Lodger” stems from the fact that it could be a very good movie. Cregar gives a marvelous performance as Slade, making you wish the movie were told from his perspective, a’la “The Sniper.” Brahm and his cinematographer Lucien Ballard make the movie look stunning. Yes, stunning. One of the first shots is of a police officer stepping into an abandoned, fog-covered London street that countless other film and television shows have tried to mimic, usually not as well. There are several memorable visual sequences, like the first murder long-take (though, amazingly, the same actress is killed here who shows up later as another “actress” that is killed!), or when the police officers climb the buildings of the slum trying to catch the Ripper. And the finale sequence, which sees a shot Slade trapped in the theater and racing to-and-fro like a cornered rat, is amazing. There’s a shot of Cregar holding a knife and a slow pan in that captures the killer’s mania perfectly.

Brahm never made a masterpiece, though he did make quite a good career out of remaking other movies. Aside from “The Lodger,” he remade “Broken Blossoms” and “Time to Kill” (as the unfortunately-titled “The Brasher Doubloon”). I like his visual style and am curious to see his other films noir, which include “Doubloon” and “The Locket.”

Jack the Ripper has inspired many horrible films, and several wonderful ones (“Murder by Decree,” “From Hell,” “Time After Time”). “The Lodger” sits right there in the middle of the road, certainly memorable but still not all that good. It made me want to rewatch the original, and I’m going to recommend you do that instead of watching this one.

Score: **1/2

V.I. Warshawski

vi war 1The Film Noir Odyssey

Writer: Edward Taylor, David Aaron Cohen and Nick Thiel

Based on the novel “Deadlock” by Sara Paretsky

Director: Jeff Kanew

Cinematographer: Jan Kiesser

Music: Randy Edelman

Cast: Kathleen Turner, Jay O. Sanders, Charles Durning, Angela Goethals

Release: July 26, 1991

Studio: Buena Vista Pictures

Percent Noir: 30%

For a film that was a notorious box office bomb, enraged nearly every critic in America and began Kathleen Turner’s tumble from the A-list, “V.I. Warshawski” isn’t half bad. In fact, for most of its first act, I’d go so far as to call is a *gasp!* good movie. And Turner is so good as the title private dick that I really wish there had been a sequel – one that had a story and direction that matched her talents.

Unfortunately for Turner, the film seems to have been noted to within an inch of its life by studio executives and nervous producers, and once act two begins the movie falls apart. But that first act? Wow. In a few short scenes, the trio of screenwriters and director Jeff Kanew help Turner create an indelible character, one with all the great hallmarks of the great noir detective. Her love life is a trainwreck, which also describes her apartment. She uses the initials V.I. on her business card instead of “Vicki” because “it’s easier for men to condescend to a woman when they know her first name.” Most importantly, she’s been gifted with that quick wit and I-don’t-give-a-fuck-ness of the best private eyes. There isn’t much of a plot in these first scenes, and the movie is better for it.

M8DVIWA EC002The problems start when a hockey player named Boom Boom (Stephen Meadows) who she flirted with shows up at her door with his 13-year-old daughter Kat (Angela Goethals) asking her to babysit. A few hours later, Boom Boom dies in an explosion on the docks and Vicki finds herself taking in Kat, who hires her to find out who killed her father. You can see the Hollywood notes now – “how can we make this edgy bitch digestible for mass audiences? I know… we’ll saddle her with a kid: that way we know she’s still feminine and all that shit.” So Kat is first shipped offscreen for several scenes (because, you know, watching a kid grieve her dead father is such a drag), and when she reappears she’s spunky and cracking jokes with no trace of sadness over what just happened. Kat and Vicki go undercover together to unmask the killer. Sure, it’s putting a child in the line of fire directly after Vicki is beaten senseless by some thugs, but whatever. The tone of the movie shifts awkwardly here from mystery to comedy, and also involves a totally unnecessary speedboat chase that ends with a very unfortunate gag so separated from reality that the movie never quite recovers.

Teaming up Vicki and Kat is a bad idea, but at least Turner and Goethals have some chemistry. There’s a scene where they walk in on Vicki’s on-again-off-again boyfriend having just slept with a woman where they team up to get her out of the apartment, and the moment got several genuine laughs from me. The rest of the cast, aside from Charles Durning as Vicki’s father figure, are passable, I guess. Jay O’Sanders does well enough with Turner, but his character varies wildly from scene to scene (probably because of script rewrites by different writers) and it’s hard to muster up any sympathy for him. Nancy Paul was cast as Kat’s suspicious mother when Bernadette Peters probably turned down the role, and Stephen Root as Kat’s suspicious father-in-law when Sting probably turned down the role, and neither does much but remind you of the other actors.

Kanew’s direction doesn’t help much either – I doubt there’s a single shot in the movie of any significance. Well, there is one shot where a flock of birds takes off during the speedboat chase, but I think that was more a lucky accident rather than a perfectly planned and executed moment. Vicki’s apartment overlooks Wrigley Field, and yet Kanew manages to make it seem like the most boring location possible. Everything looks okay, but nothing looks extraordinary.

And yet.

vi war 2And yet I came away from the movie liking it more than hating it, and that is thanks to Kathleen Turner’s performance. She played one of the most memorable femmes fatale in history in “Body Heat,” and here you just wish that the movie would rise to her level. A few times it does, as when Vicki threatens a heavy with a nutcracker by literally threatening to crack his nuts. She can really sell a punchline too – when a suspect goes on and on about all the women he’s slept with, Turner cracks: “Just can’t get the hang of it, huh?” And I don’t know how Turner could make an evening dress, a cotton robe and slippers into a sexy ensemble, but she does. I believe all those things add up to the definition of a movie star.

In a different universe, “V.I. Warshawski” was written by David Mamet and directed by Penny Marshall, was a huge hit and launched a franchise for Turner. I wish I was there. But alas, what we have here is a middling comedy/suspense flick lost in dregs of history, and you can probably get it for 29 cents used (with the Blockbuster tag still on!) off Amazon. Still, you should watch it. Because Kathleen Turner. And that’s more than enough.

Score: **1/2

The Handmaiden

the handmaiden 1.pngThe Film Noir Odyssey

Writer: Park Chan-Wook & Chung Seo-kyung

Based on: “Fingersmith” written by Sarah Waters

Director: Park Chan-Wook

Cinematographer: Chung Chung-hoon

Music: Cho Young-wuk

Cast: Kim Tae-ri, Kim Min-hee, Ha Jung-woo, Cho Jin-woong

Release: June 1, 2016

Studio: Moho Films & Yong Films

Percent Noir: 40%

“The Handmaiden” washes over you like a wave the first time you see it – leaving you stunned and in awe of the excellence of every aspect of the production. Its two-and-a-half-hour running time races by as you desperately attempt to keep up with its twists, secrets and storytelling. And then, when the final frames fade to the credits, you are left breathless, elated and struggling to comprehend what you have experienced.

It’s noir. But it’s also gothic horror. And a bodice ripper. And a romance. And a period drama. And a sexual, psychological thriller (okay, that’s noir too). And, in odd ways, funnier than some of the best comedies. It’s all these things, and yet is one of those very rare films that transcends all genres to become its own thing. Also, there’s a giant octopus.

the handmaiden 2It seems almost beside the point to attempt to sum up the plot, because it functions as the filmic equivalent of a Russian nesting doll. Here are a few things that are for sure. Kim Tae-ri plays a woman we’ll call Sook-hee, even though that’s not her name, who lies to become the handmaiden to the beautiful Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee). She thinks she is working with the handsome schemer Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo), who will seduce and marry Hideko, take her fortune then claim she is insane. Hideko is living at her uncle Kouzuki’s (Cho Jin-woong) home – an amazing manor that is half English mansion and half Japanese castle, and the assumption is that Kouzuki will marry his niece (if you think that is gross, just wait) and claim her fortune to help maintain his storied historical library. Plus the aforementioned Octopus.

The above story is nothing. These four main characters and their motivations bounce off one another in many fascinating ways, and the film itself twists its timeline, turning back in on itself multiple times in multiple ways to re-tell certain sequences from different perspectives. If it sounds complex, it is. But you never feel lost… at least, you never feel more lost than the screenwriters Park Chan-Wook & Chung Seo-kyung mean you to be. The film is split into three parts, each sorta-kinda-not really told from one of the character’s perspectives, and soon you begin playing along with the film. You begin questioning nearly every single scene, wondering why we are seeing it as we are in the way it is presented, but even then the film may be fucking with you. If you think it sounds tiring, it’s not – this is more like unwrapping a present on Christmas morning.

Funnily enough, I normally never engage with films where you are constantly questioning the motives of all the main characters on a minute-by-minute basis. And yet here I engaged. Sook-hee is introduced in such a way where we empathize with her, even though she is plotting to do a horrible thing, and as she softens and becomes defensive of Hideko, we become even more sympathetic. Then, after hating Hideko at the beginning of the second part, we spend 40 minutes falling in love with her and loathing her uncle for the ghastly things he has done to her. By the final part we are completely rooting for the women – I almost cheered at several moments near the finale.

the handmaiden 3Part of the fun of noir is the implication of sex and violence. You never quite knowing if a dick and his femme fatale are screwing or not. You see the gun firing, but never see the head exploding. And the inferences are somehow sexier. “The Handmaiden” is an exception to the rule. It’s incredibly violent in a myriad of creative, disgusting ways. And it’s very, very explicit in terms of illustrating sexuality. But instead of seeming exploitative, this content works. It works because we care about the characters and because it’s beautifully shot. I never thought that I would write that a man’s chopped-off fingers being swept into a trash bin was beautiful, but there you go.

Then again, this is a Park Chan-Wook film, so nothing should surprise me. I greatly admire his films like “Thirst” and “Lady Vengeance,” but I don’t love them. I don’t love “Oldboy” either, despite loving many things about it, and giving the guy props on creating an ending that will live right beside “Seven,” “Psycho” and “The Sixth Sense” in terms of infamy. But I do love “The Handmaiden” and think it’s a masterpiece.

There are over a dozen small moments or short scenes in “The Handmaiden” that are perfect in their own way. Witness when Sook-hee seeks out her mistress at her reading lessons and steps into the library, which is guarded by a porcelain snake, and the way the camera swoops forward to introduce the space. Or the moment Sook-hee catches Hideko when she attempts to hang herself, and they find themselves having a frank conversation about their feelings and motives before the moment ends in a perfectly presented bit of black comedy. And the scene where Hideko complains of a sharp tooth and Sook-hee uses a thimble to fix the problem is one of the sexiest ever committed to film.

The quartet of actors at the center of the film are, by and large, perfect in their respective roles and have fascinating chemistry with one another. Chan-Wook directs them all in an interesting way, to make them seem emotionally forthcoming on the surface, but each of the actors has a stillness to his or her performance that infers more is at work in the character’s mind than he or she is willing to show. Tae-ri and Min-hee have off-the-charts chemistry with one another, and the scenes where they finally reveal all to one another are profoundly powerful.

There are images from “The Handmaiden” that are indelibly placed in my mind. They “are” cinema in the same way Norma Desmond coming down those stairs is in “Sunset Boulevard” or Ellen allowing her brother-in-law to drown in “Leave Her to Heaven” is cinema. Watching the movie is recognizing artists working at the top of their respective powers to create a movie that cinephiles will talk about for decades to come. If you love movies, watch it.

Score: *****

Lady in the Lake

lady in the lake 1The Film Noir Odyssey

Writer: Steve Fisher

Based on the novel “Lady in the Lake” by Raymond Chandler

Director: Robert Montgomery

Cinematographer: Paul Vogel

Music: David Snell

Cast: Robert Montgomery, Audrey Totter, Lloyd Nolan, Leon Ames, Jayne Meadows, Richard Simmons

Release: Jan 23, 1947

Studio: MGM

Percent Noir: 70%

Damn, I really wanted to like this one.

It was a mad folly for director Robert Montgomery, who also stars as private dick Phillip Marlowe, to shoot (almost) an entire feature film from the point of view of its protagonist… but then again, some of the best films in history are mad follies. Unfortunately, “Lady in the Lake” isn’t a great film. Sometimes it’s a good one, but not often.

It’s not that I’m opposed to shooting from a character’s point of view. It’s been done famously by many great directors, most notably Brian De Palma (“Blow Out,” “The Untouchables”) and John Carpenter (“Halloween”). But those were long scenes, not an entire movie. During its feels-like-it’s-longer-than-it-is 105 minute running time, I kept waiting for myself to mentally just forget about the gimmick and engage with the movie fully. That never happened.

But before we get into why not, let’s talk about the story. Marlowe has decided to pad his low detective pay by writing a detective story. He’s called into the publisher and meets with one of the editors, Adrienne (Audrey Totter), and it becomes clear that she wants to hire Marlowe for a case. The wife of publisher Kingsby (Leon Ames) has gone missing, and Adrienne seems all too eager to leave Marlowe an obvious trail of breadcrumbs for him to follow. Clues, suspects and red herrings include a dead woman found decaying in a lake, a superintendent who searched every room of one of her houses but didn’t notice a stiff in the shower, a really angry cop and a telegram from the Mrs. Kingsby.

“The Lady in the Lake” is considered one of Raymond Chandler’s best novels, an opinion I agree with, and is one of the times when his labyrinthine plotting actually pays off with a great finale. Steve Fisher adapted the book and adds a lot of repetition for clarity. Characters do something, then explain to other characters what they have just done, then explain to other characters why they did what they have done. As a result, I’d venture to say that the central mystery is pretty easy to solve for those watching at home, which is a shame since the book’s climax was genuinely surprising.

lady in the lake 3That repetition in the film can’t entirely be blamed on Fisher, though. It’s built into the POV problem – almost every scene begins with Marlowe entering a room, so we get all the annoying pleasantries and unnecessary recaps by design. There’s no real cutting through the bullshit – at certain points, I was desperately hoping for some quick cutting or a montage from Marlowe’s perspective, but we never got it. The POV gimmick seems to weigh the filmmakers down instead of giving them a new sandbox to play in.

Instead, you just start getting bored with the POV as soon as the movie is getting underway. Every time “you” enter a room or move around, it’s very, very slowly, as if “you” were attached to a camera that weighs several hundred pounds. Montgomery tries to cover for this blank space by having Marlowe whistle (it becomes as grating as nails on a chalkboard after awhile), having him blow smoke from a cigarette and by throwing in several scenes where “you” look into a mirror and see Robert Montgomery looking back. Further, some of the most interesting sections of the film take place off camera because it would have been too tough to pull off technically, I guess. At a certain point the film just cuts to Montgomery explaining to the camera, confessional style, some really interesting developments in the case he just uncovered when he visited a camping sight. We hear about it and think “Wow, that would have made a great scene. Why didn’t we see it?”

lady in the lake 2And, I guess, on a fundamental level I’m curious why the filmmakers thought that this story in particular was the one they needed to try out the gimmick for. Nothing about the original novel made it seem like something that needed to be told completely from Marlowe’s POV – in fact, the slowness of the camera often hurts the pacing of the hardboiled dialogue so famous from Chandler’s books. You finish the film and still don’t know why – at least “Dark Passage” had a halfway decent excuse.

The one person who comes off well from the enterprise is Audrey Totter, who owes Montgomery a big kiss in thanks for giving her such a showcase. It’s a very good performance, especially considering she is basically face-to-face with an unforgiving camera the entre time. The most affecting moment in the film comes on Christmas Eve, when Adrienne and Marlowe finally drop their guises and are honest. “Where do you usually spend Christmas Eve?” Adrienne asks. “A bar,” Marlowe admits. When Adrienne responds that she usually spends the evening at a nightclub, the fragility on Totter’s face is heartbreaking.

Jayne Meadows and Richard Simmons (not that one) turn their brief roles into memorable moments, but the rest of the cast is… okay. Montgomery and the Marlowe character don’t mesh well – part of it is the fact that we mostly only hear his voice, part of it from the fact that he can’t talk until every camera move is finished, and part is that he just can’t sell his character like he should. Whatever the reason, it’s one of the weakest parts of the film.

Could this gimmick work for an entire film? Probably, somehow. But it’s very telling that the best moment happens at the end of the opening credits, which are Christmas cards that are covering a gun. Now that’s the kind of excellence I expect in a Raymond Chandler adaptation.

Score: **

High & Low/Heaven & Hell

high and lowThe Kurosawa Odyssey

Year: 1963

Studio: Toho Studios, Kurosawa Productions Co.

Screenwriter: Ryuzo Kikushima, Akira Kurosawa, Hideo Oguni, Tomoyuki Tanaka, based on the book by Evan Hunter

Cast: Toshiro Mifune, Tatsuya Nakadai, Kenjiro Ishiyama

Cinematographer: Asakazu Nakai, Takao Saito

Music: Masaru Sato

“High and Low” has about six different movies wrapped into its two-and-a-half hour running time, and all of them are pretty awesome. Even more impressively, this is one of the rarest of thrillers – one without a main character. The only other one I can think of is Fritz Lang’s masterpiece “M,” so “High and Low” is in good company.

I much prefer the literal translation of the Japanese title, “Heaven and Hell,” and it addresses one of Kurosawa’s most revisited themes – wealth verses poverty. In the middle of a sweltering summer, someone has been staring up from the hells of the city ghetto to the stunning, air-conditioned house on a hill that overlooks the city. The house is owned by National Shoes executive Gondo (Toshiro Mifune), and the man in the ghetto decides to drag Gondo out of his heaven and down into hell.

But before that happens, we get 20 minutes of intrigue about women’s shoes. And it’s so much more gripping than any storyline about women’s shoes has any right to be. Gondo is fending off a group of executives who want to start producing cheap, shitty shoes. He’s putting his entire fortune on the line in order to take control of the entire company.

Then, suddenly, that drama is interrupted by a phone call – Gondo’s son has been kidnapped, and the ransom is roughly everything Gondo was going to spend on the takeover. 99% of lesser movies would have turned it into some sort of conspiracy, but Kurosawa and his three co-screenwriters have other ideas in mind. Turns out the kidnapper didn’t take Gondo’s son – he took the son of the Chauffer (Yutaka Sada) by mistake. The kidnapper doesn’t care, though – he insists on getting the ransom, otherwise he kills the Chauffer’s son, and banks on Gondo being humane enough to not let that happen.

Suddenly we have an incredibly gripping ethical dilemma. Would you give away all your hard-earned money to save the life of someone else’s child? The screenwriters have their cake and eat it too, framing Gondo’s decision to pay the ransom as the right thing to do…and absolutely nuts. When other characters offer opinions (in one incredible scene the police watch as the Chauffer gets down on his knees and begs for his son’s life), our sympathies keep aligning in different ways. There is no easy answer, and after Gondo gives his fortune away, Kurosawa ensures that we understand how devastating the consequences are – the right decision doesn’t mean it’s the easy one.

high and low 3I make this sound like “High and Low” is all about Gondo, but it isn’t. After the first hour, the point-of-view shifts away from the shoe mogul and onto the detectives trying to figure out whodunit. The shift point is an incredibly tense sequence on a bullet train, where the police helplessly watch as Gondo throws his fortune out the window. The boy is returned, but the police still have work to do. The way the screenwriters handle the transition is brilliant – you feel frustration with the police for not helping Gondo keep his money… and then Kurosawa cuts to a room full of sweating, exhausted police officers and outlines just how much work the officers have done on the case. And it’s a lot.

It’s just as gripping as the ethical dilemma, albeit in a completely different way. There’s something so wonderful about watching competent people doing their jobs well. The lead detective on the case is named Tokura (Tatsuya Nakadai), and his character is kept purposely bland. We needed to get into the mind of Gondo to understand his decisions, but with Tokura the case is what we want to focus on. The detective might have inner demons, a drinking problem, or whatever other cliché you can think of, but we wouldn’t know from the movie. Tokura is a cipher, easily upstaged by the supporting detectives like Bos’n (Kenjiro Ishiyama), and I think it’s the smartest thing Kurosawa could have done.

I also have to ask what the hell happened to Kurosawa’s relationship with Takashi Shimura. He continues to be cast in almost every one of Kurosawa’s films, but he’s barely visible in any of them. Why not cast him as Bos’n or the lead detective on the case? Why not cast him as Gondo and make Mifune the detective? It seems like such a waste of potential to see Shimura relegated to such nothing roles.

high and lowThe identity of the kidnapper is revealed fairly quickly in a non-showy manner. It’s a medical student named Ginjiro (Tsutomu Yamazaki)…and he seems pretty normal, as far as kidnappers are concerned. In “M,” the pedophile was played by Peter Lorre, with his round, child-like face and bulging eyes. It’s hard to forget that face. Ginjiro is vaguely handsome, stick thin and his face is barely memorable. He could be anyone, and that’s part of why the casting is effective. When the movie shifts gears in the final act from the investigation to a game of cat-and-mouse between the kidnapper and the detectives, Kurosawa puts a pair of reflective sunglasses on Ginjiro (it’s the middle of the night, but whatever). In doing so, he wipes away all traces of emotion from the kidnapper’s face, which makes his actions all the more unpredictable and, consequently, the sequence more tense.

The detectives follow Ginjiro down into the most hellish parts of the city – into brothels and crack houses where women in withdrawal scratch the walls until their nails break off. And then, to complete his metaphor, the screenwriters have the kidnapper head to the coast – he’s almost pulled off his murderous scheme and reached his “heaven” when the police find him.

In Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho,” the movie unravels in the final five minutes as a psychology explains every. single. motivation. behind Norman Bates’ actions. It’s so hammy that it reads as comedic today. It’s a testament to Kurosawa’s genius that he refuses to give us any easy answers. There’s an incredible final sequence where Gondo meets Ginjiro in prison. We learn that Gondo has started working for a smaller shoe company but has free rein to do what he likes… but learn nothing about Ginjiro’s motivations. He hints, cackles and has a mental breakdown… but he gives no answers. And isn’t that scarier? What added value would the movie have if the screenwriters had explained away his motivations?

“High and Low” remains one of my all time favorite Kurosawa films. We’re heading into the home stretch of the most fruitful, masterful section of the maestro’s career, which started with “The Bad Sleep Well,” includes “Yojimbo,” “Sanjuro,” “High and Low” and will wrap up with his next film “Red Beard.” Any of these masterpieces would be enough to solidify a director’s legacy as one of the greats, but to have all five in a row? It’s a run unsurpassed by any other filmmaker.

Notes:

-Need I mention Kurosawa’s obsession with feet here? I mean, Mifune plays a shoe designer.

-It’s oft said that “High and Low” directly inspired Dick Wolf in the creation of “Law & Order.” Who knows if it’s true, but it certainly is plausible.

-I’m pretty surprised that this has never gotten an American remake, since its storyline is such a great hook. Actually, I’m just gonna call my manager real quick…

Journey Into Fear

journey into fear 1The Film Noir Odyssey

Writer: Joseph Cotton (credited), Orson Welles (uncredited)

Based on the novel “Journey Into Fear” written by Eric Ambler

Director: Norman Foster

Cinematographer: Karl Struss

Music: Roy Webb

Cast: Joseph Cotton, Dolores del Rio, Ruth Warrick, Orson Welles

Release: February 12, 1943

Studio: RKO Radio Pictures

Percent Noir: 60%

“Journey Into Fear” is neither a masterpiece nor a bad film. It’s not Welles-ian to be an Orson Welles film, nor is it Hitchcockian enough to appeal to his fanbase. Despite being categorized as a film noir and a spy thriller, it doesn’t function well as either. Here is a minor film in the canon of every one of the impressive filmmakers who created it – unnecessary viewing for all but the most devoted of their followers.

It is, mostly simply stated, a curiosity.

Joseph Cotton stars as the boringly named Howard Graham, a war engineer (or something) who is almost assassinated in Istanbul because he knows too much, so a possibly friendly/possibly villainous Colonel Haki (Orson Welles in some very unfortunate make-up) dumps him on a ship bound for Batumi. Of course, an assassin (Jack Moss) hired to murder Graham is aboard, in addition to various ne’er-do-wells with shadowy motives. Then… stuff happens.

journey into fear 2Cotton (along with an uncredited Welles) adapted the screenplay from Eric Ambler’s novel, and you can make sense of about 60% of what is happening at any given time. On your second viewing. At a certain point, you just sit back and go with the flow – after all, the film is only a smidge over an hour. I don’t know how much I can blame on the screenplay anyway, since RKO famously cut the hell out of it before Welles came in to reshoot the finale.

That said, I’m genuinely shocked that Cotton penned the screenplay considering what a bland cipher his character is. The Graham character is not given a single defining character trait – he’s apparently a genius but acts pretty stupid in every situation he encounters. And for someone so in love with his wife, he doesn’t complain much when he’s told to board a ship without her… or any guarantee of her safety. It seems as if the character only exists to react to the other characters with lines like “What’s this about?” or “Can I trust you?”

Cotton uses voiceover to explain the plot, apparently writing a letter to his wife, and the actor speaks in the dire, pained tone of someone who should not have gone to Del Taco for dinner. Fundamentally, this makes no sense considering the last scene of the film, which shows Cotton writing the letter after the danger is over and while his wife is waiting for him – why not just tell her in person? But then again, that would make sense.

In addition to playing the Turkish Colonel badly, collaborating on the script and producing the film, there are various rumors that Welles also basically directed the film. Sure, Welles loved indulging in these rumors later in his career, but he’s not exactly the most reliable interview subject. The directing credit goes to Norman Foster, who directed some of the best Charlie Chan films (most notably “Charlie Chan at Treasure Island”) and, for my money, the film noir with the coolest title ever: “Kiss the Blood Off My Hands.” Foster acquits himself well enough to the proceedings, allowing the great cinematographer Karl Struss (“Sunrise,” “The Great Dictator,” “Some Like It Hot”) to do his thing. The most famous sequence in the film is the climax, with Cotton and Moss outside on various building ledges during a rainstorm… and it’s only really enjoyable if one takes into context that none of the characters’ actions make any rational sense during the scene.

There are several small moments in the movie that are genuinely eccentric and interesting, like the magician who pulls a live chicken out of Graham’s crotch in one of the first scenes. Or when the assassin makes himself known on the ship, he does so by sitting down and eating soup in the most aggressive manner imaginable.

And yet for a movie that features actors like Cotton, Welles, Dolores del Rio, Ruth Warrick and Agnes Moorehead, none of them really make much of an impact. Well, Welles does, but not in a good way. Moorehead had only a few lines in “Citizen Kane” but you will never forget her face in those moments, and throughout her storied career, she was often the most memorable part of any given film she was in. Here she makes less than zero impact aside from the viewer’s shock that Moorehead is onscreen… and doing nothing in particular.

journey into fear 3I wish I could say that any of this is overtly bad, but aside from Welles’ performance and that wince-worthy voiceover, nothing is blatantly atrocious onscreen. All of the boxes are ticked in roughly the way we expect them to be… but you can’t help but continuously wish that there was more here. Why not make Cotton’s character genuinely eccentric or on the spectrum so that we could find new shades for his journey? Why not do a great chase scene on the ship, where no one can escape? Why not do something with the voiceover if you are going to use it to drive your story? I feel like Welles, even if he were on autopilot, would have thought of these things.

Ben Hecht wrote the first draft of the screenplay before Cotton and Welles dumped it, and instead of focusing on the action I started wondering what that script was like. Hecht wrote as many masterpieces as any screenwriter in Hollywood’s history, including classic films noir “Notorious,” “Kiss of Death,” “Ride the Pink Horse,” “Whirlpool.” That’s never a good sign.

Should you watch the film? No. But you probably will — all film buffs go through a Welles phase. Be thankful it’s only an hour of your life.

Score: **

Jeopardy

jeopardy 1The Film Noir Odyssey

Writer: Mel Dinelli

Based on: “A Question of Time” radio play by Maurice Zimm

Director: John Sturges

Cinematographer: Victor Milner

Music: Dimitri Tiomkin

Cast: Barbara Stanwyck, Ralph Meeker, Barry Sullivan, Lee Aaker

Release: March 30, 1953

Studio: MGM

Percent Noir: 50%

Barbara Stanwyck is the queen of film noir, but we all know that she was in as many stinkers as she was masterpieces. And that’s okay – even in her worst films, Stanwyck was still awesome, and it made you appreciate her professionalism. So when I viewed the opening credits of this little-seen, little-discussed one-hour-and-ten-minute noir and they were in the font of a bad ‘50s monster movie, I didn’t hold out much hope. Boy was I wrong.

Sure, it starts pretty badly. Stanwyck’s character Helen is given some bland (bland!) filler voiceover to pad the running time, going on about travelling and Tijuana in a film that has little to do with the former and nothing to do with the latter. But as the actual story is set into motion, things get interesting. Helen, her husband Doug (Barry Sullivan) and their young son Bobby (Lee Aaker) are vacationing in a remote part of Mexico. They set up next to an abandoned, falling-apart jetty, and thanks to an accident Doug gets his leg stuck under a pole of wood. He’s fine, but trapped, and no one panics… until they realize the tide is coming in and will drown Doug within four hours unless they get him free. Uh oh. Helen races to get help and rope to move the wood, but it’s at least an hour’s drive to anywhere with human beings.

In other words, things suck. They get worse when Helen accidentally picks up an escaped murderer named Lawson (Ralph Meeker) and is suddenly thrust into a battle of wills with him. He wants to get out of the area before the police find him, she just wants to get back to help her husband. And all through this, the tide continues to come in…

jeopardy 3Once the story gets moving, it’s a doozy. Better than that, no one acts stupid. Helen tries to use the car’s jack to get the wood off her husband (why did it feel dirty typing that?). She tries to get away every chance she can once Lawson shows his true colors, and physically fights him often so she can escape (one fight in particular seems so real I’m surprised Meeker didn’t come away with scratches on his face). Though at first Helen seems no more than a cardboard wife character, the more desperate she gets, the more interesting she becomes.

And once Lawson enters the picture, it’s impossible to look away. I am not familiar with much of Meeker’s work aside from “Kiss Me Deadly,” but damn the dude is talented. He has firecracker chemistry with Stanwyck, and though he is a vile, despicable guy, Meeker makes you like his swagger and personality from the moment he starts eating Helen’s crackers (not a metaphor). I almost wonder if they rewrote the ending of the film to give Meeker some redemption and the possibility of escape once they realized that the audience would immediately fall for him.

jeopardy 2Meeker and Stanwyck take part in a very interesting scene at an abandoned house. An increasingly desperate Helen knows her husband only has a few minutes left, so she tries her hand at seducing Lawson. And since it’s Barbara Stanwyck, she does a damn good job at it. You really believe her when she makes sex eyes at Lawson and says “I’ll do anything to save my husband.” Lawson says that, if he helps Doug, Helen will have to go away with him and pretend to be his wife so that, when they are stopped at roadblocks, the police believe them. Helen agrees, and then the duo begin to make out. They kiss, trade insults, then kiss again. Lawson says that he doesn’t like this, kisses her once more, and they cut away. Does Helen have sex with Lawson? Probably. I’m legitimately shocked that they allowed this content in a film in 1953 but hey, good for them. I love moral ambiguity.

Also outstanding is the finale, where Lawson redeems himself by rescuing Doug in a nailbiting sequence (Sullivan seems legitimately trapped as he’s getting smacked hard by some pretty intense waves). And once he does, Helen holds up her end of the bargain by offering to leave with him. But Lawson tells her to stay with her family, then has to run when he sees the police approaching. He and Helen shake hands, and I found myself oddly moved by the moment. The movie also doesn’t even imply that Lawson will be caught – we see him escaping and have hope that he’ll get away.

There are also a bunch of small moments within the subplot of Doug and Bobby waiting at the jetty for Helen to return that just shine. When the water gets fairly high and Doug suspects Helen might not make it in time, he has a frank conversation with his son, telling Bobby that, if he dies, that Bobby still needs to stay there by the car so that he doesn’t get lost in the desert before Helen can return. Then, when Helen and Lawson arrive in the nick of time, they find Bobby embracing his father as the waves smash into the two men. It’s beautiful and touching.

Also impressive are the locations. Director John Sturges and cinematographer Victor Milner either built the creepiest jetty I’ve ever seen or found the perfect one on location. It just gives you the chills. And the sequences where Doug is trapped and the tide envelops him are brilliantly staged and choreographed – I’m certain part was done in studio, but I’ll be damned if I can tell the difference between the location shooting and the stuff done on the lot.

The crew list is an embarrassment of riches – seriously, what were all these great filmmakers doing on this little tiny B-movie? I’m not complaining, but still. First, we’ve got composer Dimitri Tiomkin, who did scores for little movies like “High Noon,” “Dial M For Murder,” “The Fall of the Roman Empire” and “The Guns of Navarone.” Cinematographer Milner was reaching the end of a storied career that included such diverse masterpieces as Lubisch’s “Trouble in Paradise,” DeMille’s “Cleopatra,” Preston Sturges’ “The Lady Eve” and “The Palm Beach Story.” Perhaps the one guy who seemed fit for the project was screenwriter Mel Dinelli, who wrote great (but underseen) noir films like “The Spiral Staircase,” “The Reckless Moment” and “House by the River.”

And then there’s director John Sturges, who would go on to helm the wonderful “Bad Day at Black Rock,” “The Magnificent Seven” and “The Great Escape.” Here he keeps the movie moving along at a breakneck pace, building to a fever pitch that you won’t forget and making things like tricky locations and an incoming tide look simple to shoot.

“Jeopardy” really blew me away. For a movie that starts with horrible voiceover that makes you cringe, by the end of the brief running time I cared about everyone involved to the point that I was at the edge of my couch. If you’ve never seen it, track it down, pronto.

Score: ****1/2